RUSSELL, Pa. When major league players walk to the plate during the playoffs many of them carry bats stamped ''Louisville.'' Do not be deceived. The Louisville Slugger has Pennsylvania roots.
In the woods along the Pennsylvania-New York border, the terrain, the soil and the climate provide the perfect conditions for the ash and maple that become Louisville Sluggers. But even then, many of the trees aren't good enough to make it to the big leagues.
Before they become bats, they become billets 40-inch cylinder-shaped pieces of wood that look like undersized fence posts. Of these, only about 5 percent end up in the majors. The rest are consigned to lesser players.
The process all starts on 8,500 acres of timberland in northern Pennsylvania and New York owned and managed by Larimer & Norton, a division of Louisville Slugger's parent company.
Forest managers clear out undesired species and trees of poor quality but otherwise let nature do its thing. No seedlings are planted.
''We try to massage the forest so that it will reproduce the species we desire,'' says Jack Buckler, timberlands manager.
Much of the timberland is owned as investment property, so it's just as likely a tree will have a future life as a piece of furniture or flooring.
The trees chosen to become bats are shipped to company mills to be processed into billets. After initial shaping, they are stacked on pallets and placed into a large kiln where industrial-sized fans circulate warm air to reduce moisture. After about a month, they are removed and reshaped because the drying process makes them somewhat oval.
Once a week, a truck picks up 7,000 to 8,000 billets and hauls them to Louisville, Ky., where an electronically controlled lathe shapes them into bats and workers finish them off to a variety of specifications. Most are sent to retail stores because of some barely perceptible imperfection.
At a company mill in Akeley, Pa., Jeff Eckman picked up a freshly drilled ash billet and points out the attributes that make it fit for the pros: The growth rings are even and close together; the blonde wood is uniform in color, free of knots; and blemishes and the grain runs true the entire length.
''The baseball players demand even space growth rings,'' Buckler says.
Major league players are very choosy: On average, they order 120 bats for a season but reject about half, said Chuck Schupp, director of pro baseball for Louisville Slugger, which supplies more than 60 percent of the bats used in the league.
To see if a bat ''feels'' right, players will tap bats on the ground or tap a ball against the bat.
''There's a lot of leeway in what's physical reality and what's perceived reality for players,'' Schupp said. ''I question even when a player says, 'This is not a gamer.' Well, why isn't it a gamer?''
Lately, professional baseball players have been switching to maple instead of long-favored ash.
Schupp said the shift began about six years ago when Barry Bonds turned to maple bats made by Canada's SAM Bat.
Now, 48 percent of bats supplied by Louisville Slugger to MLB players are made of maple, Schupp said. Maple is harder than ash and players say that helps the ball fly off the bat. Players also believe maple is more durable.
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jason Bay, who won last season's National League Rookie of the Year award, prefers maple bats.
''Longevitywise they're much better because they don't flake over the course of time, whereas with the ash bats, the grain tends to fall apart,'' Bay said.
Catcher Brad Ausmus, whose Houston Astros face the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs, has been using Louisville Slugger maple bats since last season. He said they don't break as readily as ash.
''I don't know if it's the density or the lack of graining in the wood,'' he said.
That ash breaks easier than maple is a common complaint. But maple and ash break differently, Schupp said. Ash tends to flake or splinter, so an ash bat may crack, but won't go flying in pieces, as maple tends to do.
Be it ash or maple, players complain that bats are breaking more often. Back at the mill in Akeley, Eckman dismisses criticism that the quality of wood is to blame.
What's causing more broken bats, he said, is players' desire for light bats, which are easier to swing than heavy bats.
Because players want to maintain a big barrel and therefore a bigger sweet spot weight must come off the handle.
''To get a light stick, you take more wood off of it. Where do you take the wood off? The handle,'' Eckman said. Thirty years ago, he said, bat handles were 1 1-8 inch; now they're three-quarters of an inch.
''They keep saying it's the wood. There ain't no better wood,'' Eckman said, be it ash or maple. ''Ain't no such thing as bad wood going to professional ball.''
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